A generation or two ago, mystery flights were one of the quirks of the Australian airline scene. You’d buy a ticket, not knowing where you’d be heading. It was a real lottery, which was what gave mystery flights their edge. You could end up having lunch on the beach on the sunny Gold Coast. Alternatively, you might end up freezing your butt off in the rain somewhere. Mystery flights proved popular but were eventually discontinued by most airlines. In later times, Virgin Australia upped the ante by offering mystery weekends away.
Beach destinations were always a hit with passengers
When I was a kid, Ansett, East-West Airlines, and Australian Airlines (the predecessor to Qantas domestic) all ran mystery flights. My sister was a teenage mystery flight aficionado and an East-West loyalist. During school holidays, she and a friend would end up on the Sunshine Coast for a few hours, flying up on a Fokker F27. They’d catch the bus to Maroochydore beach, have a swim and eat hamburgers on the sand. All for the princely sum of around $50.
Different airlines ran mystery flights differently. Ansett and East-West didn’t tell you where you were going until you rolled up to the airport. They’d simply tell you what time to be at the airport. This tactic caused the odd problem because people dressed for the beach and ended up in Launceston. Or hoped for Perth and got Canberra.
Australian Airlines would tell you where you were going 24 hours before if you rang the call center. At least then, you’d dress appropriately. A former airline employee who used to sell mystery flights said specific destinations were popular. Cairns, Alice Springs, Coolangatta, and Maroochydore always got the thumbs up from passengers. Not so Canberra, Adelaide, and Hobart. People always complained when they got sent there, which is a bit harsh, especially on Hobart. Hobart is a fabulous place.
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Where you went was decided by the yield management team
Mystery flights were a simple way for airlines to fill empty seats and generate some revenue. Where you went was determined by yield management the day before travel, based on where the empty seats were the next day.
“There is no way to guarantee a destination, it’s the luck of the draw,” the airline employee said.
Mystery flight tickets would be priced between about $50 and $150, depending on your origin city and who you were flying with. That might seem cheap, but this was 30 years ago, so it wasn’t really. Instead, it highlights how affordable airline travel has become in subsequent years.
One by one, those old school airlines flying around Australia disappeared off the radar. Ansett ate East-West and collapsed itself in 2001. Australian Airlines got subsumed into Qantas. In later years, Qantas never really embraced mystery flights.
Virgin Australia kept selling mystery breaks until earlier this year
Until earlier this year, Virgin Australia offered an updated version of those old mystery flights. They offered mystery breaks from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, or Perth. The deal included airfares, 4 to 5-star accommodation, and airport transfers. What you paid would depend on your origin airport and how many nights you wanted to stay away.
You could, for example, end up in Adelaide. Or perhaps Hamilton Island. Or Melbourne, Newcastle, or Cairns. There’s a certain element of luck here. You could end up on Hamilton Island, which would be no hardship. Equally, you could end up in Newcastle, which might sap your enthusiasm.
But that’s the point of mystery flights. You never knew where you were going, and even the most ordinary destination has its charms once you make an effort to scratch the surface. No airlines in Australia offer mystery flights anymore, and that’s a shame. They were a unique product that introduced a lot of people to flying when taking a flight wasn’t as common as it is now. When Virgin Australia gets back on its feet, perhaps they’ll offer their version once again.